What do we really know about the ancient Persians? Explore the secrets of one of the greatest empires in the ancient world from a fresh perspective: its own. Over the span of 24 lectures, Professor John W. I. Lee examines Persian sources to reveal what we known about this grand civilization. Tapping into the latest scholarship, The Persian Empire is sure to fill in some critical gaps in your understanding and appreciation of the sweep of ancient history and its undeniable effect on later civilizations.
The Persian Empire
Professor John W. I. Lee is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He grew up in Southeast Asia and Hawaii. After studying history at the University of Washington, he earned his Ph.D. in History from Cornell University. Professor Lee's research specialty is the history of warfare in the ancient world. He has published on ancient mercenary soldiers, Greek and Persian armies, women in ancient war, the origins of military autobiography, and urban combat in antiquity. He is the author of A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon's Anabasis, published by Cambridge University Press. Professor Lee has won a UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award for 2003-2004 and the University's Harold J. Plous Award for 2005-2006, which is given to the outstanding Assistant Professor for performance and promise as measured by creative action and contribution to the intellectual life of the college community. Professor Lee has conducted field research and has led travel-study groups in Greece and Turkey. He is currently director of the Ancient Mediterranean Studies program at UC Santa Barbara and co-organizer of the University of California Multi-Campus Research Group on Ancient Borderlands.
01: Rethinking the Persian Empire
Cyrus. Darius. Xerxes. These great Persian kings were sometimes stereotyped as one-dimensional despots in Greek histories. But through modern history detective work, you’ll uncover the truth about the Achaemenid Persian Empire—an “empire of information” that stretched from Egypt and Asia Minor, through Mesopotamia and Iran, all the way to the Indus Valley.
02: Questioning the Sources
Explore how we’ve come to know the Persian Empire. Greek historians such as Herodotus provided valuable information, but the Greek perspective was often negatively biased. For a more balanced perspective, turn to archaeology, which has uncovered inscriptions, administrative tablets, and other documents that let the Persians speak for themselves.
03: The World before Cyrus
Take a tour of the ancient world before the Persian Empire. In the centuries leading up to the Persian Empire, the Assyrians were the major international power. When the Assyrian kingdom collapsed, it left a power vacuum in the region. Watch as the stage was set for a new power to seize the imperial mantle.
04: Cyrus and Cambyses - Founders of the Empire
Learn how Cyrus, the first great king of the Persian Empire, expanded the empire through pragmatic leadership. You’ll see how he made use of local customs and traditions and thereby gained legitimacy over a wide territory—including central Asia and Babylon. His son Cambyses continued that method when he expanded the empire into Egypt.
05: Darius I - Creator of the Imperial System
Witness the first challenge to the new empire: Was Darius, the son-in-law of Cyrus, a legitimate king? After Cambyses died, and in the face of civil war, Darius established himself as a swift, decisive, unwavering leader. See how Darius created both a royal genealogy and a Persian identity, after which he turned to building infrastructure.
06: Persian Capitals and Royal Palaces
Step back and tour the five Persian capitals—Pasargadae, Ecbatana, Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis. Built in strategic, fortified locations, these cities were important symbols of power for the great kings. For instance, you’ll encounter the great hall at Persepolis, which could hold 10,000 guests.
07: The Great King - Images and Realities
Look beyond the outside stereotypes of Persian kings as tyrants and see what the kings themselves had to say. In sculpted reliefs and carvings on royal tombs, the words and images of Darius and Xerxes show Persian values of harmonious cooperation.
08: Royal Roads and Provinces
Take a road trip into the western provinces and see the empire’s diverse local customs. The Persian Empire was famous for its roads and bridges, and people traveled often. Learn how its express messenger system allowed information to travel quickly—and allowed the king to keep tabs on every corner of the empire.
09: East of Persepolis
Travel east through what is now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and onward into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Here you’ll discover the complexity of Persian power, as well as its lasting influence. With people moving across vast distances, the Persian Empire was held together by its efficient administration and communication systems.
10: Challenges in the West, 513 - 494 B.C.
Revolts in Ionia and Cyprus and an attack by the Athenians show the limits of the Persian philosophy of harmonious cooperation—not everyone was content under Persian rule. Explore the early challenges to Persian power and see how Darius contained these threats using diplomacy, military force, and strategic communication.
11: Across the Bitter Sea, 493 - 490 B.C.
Examine the war with the Greeks from the Persian perspective. After the Athenians threw a Persian herald into a pit, Darius sent his fleet across the Aegean Sea. They advanced into Greece without trouble, but at Marathon the Persian forces stumbled and were defeated by the Athenians.
12: Xerxes Becomes King
Learn the facts that dispel the image of Xerxes as a decadent “Oriental despot.” As a grandson of Cyrus, Xerxes was handpicked by Darius to succeed him. After assuming the throne, Xerxes easily defeated rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia, then returned to Persepolis to finish his father’s domestic projects.
13: Xerxes's War, 480 - 479 B.C.
Once again, the Persian Empire tried to take control of Greece, this time under Xerxes. See how Xerxes captured half the nation without a fight—and then scored a great victory against the Spartan king Leonidas. But witness the critical mistake at Salamis, after which the Persians were forced to retreat.
14: Cultures in Contact
Discover the variety of cultural exchanges in the Persian Empire. Never before in human history had such a large area of the globe come under the control of a single power. Here, people were constantly exchanging goods and adopting foreign customs. See how the Persian policy of tolerance of local customs enabled this multiethnic empire to flourish.
15: Achaemenid Religion
Continue your investigation of Persian culture—this time, Achaemenid religion. The Persians were influenced by the sage Zarathustra, who lived around 1000 B.C. The ancient Persians practiced polytheism, with the god Ahuramazda on top. Learn how the kings viewed themselves as instruments of god, which helped legitimize their power and justify imperialism.
16: From Expansion to Stability, 479 - 405 B.C.
Delve into a new phase of the Persian Empire, which experienced relative security and stability following Xerxes’s war in Greece. After the assassination of Xerxes, his middle son, Artaxerxes I, held the empire together and used diplomacy to deal with the Greeks. Further down the line, watch how Darius II used diplomacy during the Peloponnesian War.
17: The War of the Two Brothers
The empire was stable under Darius II, but his passing presented a new challenge to the empire. Experience the crucial moment when, after Artaxerxes II took power, his brother Cyrus orchestrated a revolt. Feel the suspense as the two brothers clashed in a great showdown at Cunaxa, fighting for the kingship.
18: Persian Gold
As part of its administrative system, the empire created a new Persian currency. From surviving business documents, discover that while agriculture was important, wealth sometimes became concentrated in the hands of a few crafty entrepreneurs, whose financial clout presented systemic risk to the empire.
19: City and Countryside
The history of the empire was not just about kings and battles. Take a look at the lives of ordinary folks. Beyond the capital cities, farming was the basis of the empire’s wealth. Explore the agricultural practices of the empire and meet day-to-day workers—including migrant laborers and slaves.
20: Women in the Persian Empire
Learn why scholars debate how much political power women had in ancient Persia. Compared to Greek women, Achaemenid women had considerable legal and economic freedom. Discover how royal women participated in palace ceremonies, and meet three powerful women in the empire—Artemisia, Mania, and Epyaxa.
21: Artaxerxes II - The Longest-Ruling King
Chart the life of “the king who loved his subjects.” After defeating his brother Cyrus, Artaxerxes II stabilized the empire, eventually negotiating an important peace with the Spartans. Watch as he then embarked on a building program unlike anything since Darius I, which showed the empire could still mobilize enormous resources.
22: Persia and Macedon, 359 - 333 B.C.
As the empire progressed into the 4th century B.C., rumors of Macedonian aggression abounded. See how Philip II—father of Alexander the Great—reformed the Macedonian military. In an interesting historical coincidence, Darius III came to power in Persia the same year as Alexander in Macedon. See how Darius III prepared for battle.
23: The End of an Empire, 333 - 323 B.C.
Witness the suspenseful battles between the Persians and the Macedonians, the sieges of Alexander the Great, and Darius III on the run. Alexander, arguably one of the greatest generals in history, commanded a powerful army and defeated Darius, then took on the mantle of Great King, adopting much of Persian ideology.
24: Legacies of the Persian Empire
When an empire ends, its culture and institutions don’t vanish overnight. Learn about the Persian legacy and what became of the kingdoms that followed—the Seleucids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. By the time Islamic invaders arrived in 651, the Persian Empire had become legend, but its legacy lives on even in modern Iran.